Pease Salutes Final Departure of KC-135 Refueling Tanker, The Military’s Oldest Plane

Mar 25, 2019

Pease fuels manager Jeff Trudeau salutes the final KC-135 to depart the base as it takes off Sunday.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Pease Air National Guard Base said goodbye to the oldest individual plane in the U.S. military’s inventory Sunday.

Hundreds gathered to watch the end of an era, as an old KC-135 Stratotanker mid-air refueling plane took off from the base in Portsmouth for the last time.

Pease will soon become the first base of its kind to fly the Stratotanker’s replacement – the KC-46A Pegasus. Both are converted jetliners made by Boeing.  

But first, it had to say goodbye to the old model. The final Stratotanker left at Pease had only been there a couple of years, but it has been flying since 1957 – making it the oldest aircraft in the Air Force inventory.

It’s one of many KC-135s that flew out of Pease over the decades. Retired commander Eugene Paquette of Dover was there to see that era begin and end.

“These old birds are ready to go and enjoy retirement like I am,” he said.

Inside a hangar at the base, with the departing aircraft parked outside, Paquette sat among rows of Air National Guard flags with hundreds of active duty service members from Pease and beyond, plus families and retirees like him.

They watched as top officials from the division remembered the KC-135 era at Pease, which spanned countless conflicts abroad and disaster responses at home.

The last Stratotanker at Pease awaits its departure Sunday.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Many recalled springing into action on Sept. 11, 2001, when KC-135s from Pease helped refuel fighter jets enforcing no-fly zones over New York and the U.S. Capitol.

“Every time we had a snowstorm, she was out there cold with us. She sat out there in that hot desert sun longer than we did, but she still delivered the mission,” said Brig. Gen. Laurie Farris, who commands New Hampshire’s Air National Guard.

“Always there, always ready, always capable. And we are gonna miss her," Farris said. "Godspeed, my friend. I’m gonna miss that plane.”

The crowds then lined the Pease runways to salute the KC-135 as it made a final pass with its refueling boom extended.

Pease will receive its first new KC-46A later this year. But pilot Jim Huff will continue flying the KC-135 – departing soon for a new post in England. He says the old planes are far more manual, and less automated than newer models.

"The more I learned about it, I kind of fell in love with it, because it's so redundant,” he says. “It can survive a nuclear blast – that's what it was built for."

Pease veteran Eugene Paquette of Dover sports a KC-135 hat at the divestiture ceremony.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Huff had flown the particular KC-135 that left Pease Sunday, among others. He says Pease provides some of the best aircraft maintenance in the business.

The old KC-135 is now heading to a new post in Arizona. But not everyone was sad to see it go.

Ben Chichester of Rye stood across the street from the base’s main gate during Sunday’s ceremony, holding a sign that said “Ban Stratotanker mentality.”

He says he’s lived under the planes’ flight path his whole life, and sees them as a sign of harmful fossil fuel use and war-mongering.

“Gas guzzlers, a golden funnel for the oil companies and companies like Boeing,” Chichester said. “These planes are not good for the earth, they cannot be sustained and we need to get rid of them. Put the keys in the river.”

The KC-135 class – including the 62-year-old plane that left Pease Sunday – is expected to remain in service for at least 30 to 40 more years.

Pease is one of only a few military installations that’s been chosen to host the Pegasus aircraft so far. The Air Force says the KC-46A can carry more than 212,000 pounds of fuel, slightly more than the KC-135.